Blood from Stars
Review: Four stars (out of four)
Each time Joe Henry releases a new record, the occasion is bittersweet for those who know and love the man's music. Dropping a Henry-created gem into the music industry as it currently stands is like breaking out the finest Waterford Crystal to serve your dinner guests a microwave burrito from the corner gas station. The subtext is something like, "why bother?" Henry has created some of the most awe-inspiring recordings of the past two decades, and the best of them -- the twin masterpieces that heralded Henry's arrival in the new millennium, "Scar" and "Tiny Voices" -- are poignant, challenging, emotionally dense records that defy genre classification and only seem to loom larger as one moves further away from them.
But, with only a cult audience to welcome them into their lives, these albums seem undervalued, beautiful orphans who were dropped into a crass and cruel world. Henry's records are more than we deserve. They are way too good for the times.
So one feels a tug at the heart, noting how much effort, passion, imagination and consummate craft goes into the making of a Henry album. Perhaps we should just feel grateful, and let it go at that.
"Blood From Stars" is Henry's latest, and like 2007's "Civilians," it is a bit less lush than the "Scars/Tiny Voices" pairing in terms of the arrangements and Henry's own production tendencies. That said, it's a brilliant collection of songs that weaves a fabric from the variegated influences Henry calls his own -- jazz, New Orleans parade music, classical, pop, avant-garde and folk. Henry produces his records like a director shaping a film, and ever since he brought Ornette Coleman into the studio to offer musical commentary on the sublime "Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation" (from "Scars"), the auteur has called on some of the hippest players in jazz and rock to lend their character to his projects. So jazz pianist Jason Moran is the first musician heard on "Blood From Stars," his Bill Evans-like lyricism informing the solo take on "Prelude: Light No Lamp," a Henry melody which is reprised with full band and vocal for the final piece on the album.
What a set-up this turns out to be, for the late-night, smoke-filled atmosphere -- as ever with Henry, it's one redolent of broken hearts and busted hopes -- is maintained like a taut violin string throughout the record. At the heart of Henry's art here is the blues, but not the cliched, beer-commercial variety. Instead, Henry employs repeated lyrical motifs implying blues chord changes, even if the compositions are following no such blueprint. It's astounding when, during "The Man I Keep Hid," you realize what you're hearing is a sort of avant-garde blues song. Similarly, the gospel hymn basis of "Death to the Storm" and "Bellwether" is both subverted and celebrated by Henry and Co.'s jubilantly disjointed arrangement.
The result is music that is all the more startlingly refreshing for the familiar signposts scattered throughout. Henry has done it again.
-- Jeff Miers
Review: 2 1/2 stars
Count Basie Orchestra
Swinging, Singing, Playing: A Tribute to the Jazz Masters
Review: 3 1/2 stars
Would you believe that the drearily old-fashioned and frequently listless one in this brace of new and vehemently traditional big band jazz records isn't the Basie ghost band but rather Roy Hargrove's 19-piece orchestra?
The general rule, of course, is that all "ghost bands" -- aggregates carrying famous names and devoted to tradition in the least interesting ways -- are scarcely worth the material they're stamped on. That's not even close to true of the Basie disc, which adds everyone from singers Jamie Cullen, Nnenna Freelon, Jon Hendricks and Janie Siegel to such elder jazz masters as Curtis Fuller, Frank Wess and, yes, Hank Jones along with Geri Allen and Butch Miles. Comparing the Hargrove band to this happy Basie-tribute bunch is like comparing a 12-pack of Crayola crayons to a big, juicy 48-pack, full of colors like watermelon and teal. Granted, neither one quite goes up to the full 64-pack of colors that Ellington and Gil Evans always made use of (and, now, the Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck orchestras do), but there's still a major difference in both energy and sonority between the tameness of Hargrove and Co. and the loose, pseudo-Basie kick of the Basie tribute band.
The only time, really, that Hargrove's records partake of any joy whatsoever is when the band, in showboating swing-band style, sings responses to Italian singer Roberta Gambrini on "September in the Rain." Compare that with Dennis Wilson's arrangements all through "Swinging, Singing, Playing" -- everything from his "Giant Blues Flag-waver" to accompaniment to Jamie Cullen on "Blame It On My Youth" -- and it's no contest. What a strangely conservative and stuffy record Hargrove's is. What unexpectedly good fun the Basie disc is.
-- Jeff Simon
Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson
Review: Three stars
The just-released "Break Up" was recorded in 2006, prior to the release of Scarlett Johansson's debut release, the all-Tom Waits record "Anywhere I Lay My Head." The actress and singer took a beating for that album, but really, the blend of TV On the Radio's soundscapes, the strength of Waits' songs, and Johansson's Nico-like approach to the material was, at the very least, incredibly interesting. Johansson didn't exactly give Joni Mitchell a run for her money, but she accorded herself well covering daunting material.
Interestingly, this earlier recording with Yorn finds her much more at ease, as if the folk-based pop constructs Yorn specializes in were far easier for Johansson to inhabit with conviction. The Serge Gainsbourg/Brigitte Bardot duets of the '60s are the most obvious corollary here, but if the effervescence and inherent sexiness of those early recordings are indeed abundant during "Break Up," it's Yorn's way with hooks that really reels the listener in.
Opener "Relator" skips along on a breezy melody (partly, purposefully, lifted from the Beatles' "All My Loving") that belies the genuine pain in the lyric. "I Don't Know What To Do" is glorious '70s AM pop, but of the greasy, garagey variety. "Blackie's Dead" is trippy electro-pop. A cover of the Chris Bell's beautiful bummer "I Am the Cosmos" lacks the grandeur of the original, but then, so does most everything else recorded since. At least Johansson's spacey torch singing manages to inhabit the existential ennui of the original.
Yorn and Johansson should work together again. They bring the best out of each other.
The Dreamer in Me
Review: Three stars
Freddy Cole is full of the devil. We have seen that over the years when he has visited Buffalo -- he goes around joking and jiving, flirting with local girls, having fun. That's the quality that shines in this disc. Don't go looking for depth -- Cole sings even the bittersweet "I Will Wait For You" as an uptempo romp, as if unwilling to commit. But you do get all kinds of lovable huggable goofball shenanigans, with patter between the numbers worthy of B.B. King. Thanks to Cole for choosing 11 underplayed songs, including Victor Young's "Where Can I Go Without You?," Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen's "More Than Likely?" and the French "What Now My Love?"
-- Mary Kunz Goldman